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Book of the Week: A Pick by Laura M. André


Book of the Week Book of the Week: A Pick by Laura M. André Laura M. André selects Carol Mavor's Aurelia: Art and Literature through the Mouth of the Fairy Tale as Book of the Week.

Aurelia: Art and Literature through the Mouth of the Fairy Tale
By Carol Mavor. Reaktion Books, 2017.

Laura M. André selects Carol Mavor's Aurelia: Art and Literature through the Mouth of the Fairy Tale, from Reaktion Books, as Book of the Week.


With her latest book, Aurelia, Carol Mavor spins a meta fairy tale that transports us through a fevered, dreamlike constellation of words and images. Along the way, she demonstrates how fairy tales—which may or may not involve actual fairies—have deeply affected (mostly Western) art and literature. In turn, Mavor offers us a looking glass that reveals how our own, real stories invoke fairy-tale desires.

Beginning with Bill Henson's cover photograph, Mavor's dizzying, kaleidoscopic array of images vacillates between Francesca Woodman, medieval manuscript illuminations, Julia Margaret Cameron, vernacular snapshots, 19th-century glass flowers, documentary film, Kiki Smith, Langston Hughes, Lewis Carroll's girls, Bernard Faucon's boys, Ralph Eugene Meatyard's Lucybelle Craters, the Lascaux cave paintings, and much, much more.


Indeed, Aurelia defies categorization: it's an artist's book as much as it is a scholarly one; it's both analytic and novelesque. For example, Mavor tantalizingly links early wet-plate photography experiments to oral consumption "because, during this period, photographers held their stolen images, not with traditional photographic chemicals, but in sugar, caramel, treacle, malt, raspberry syrup, ginger wine, sherry, beer, and skimmed milk." But, as Mavor argues, within the presumed sweetness of fairy tales, which are supposed to end happily ever after, lurks a great deal of sadism, violence, and death.



Aurelia: Art and Literature through the Mouth of the Fairy Tale
By Carol MavorReaktion Books, 2017.

Mavor continues, "The glass of early glass-plate negatives...doubles up the photograph's inherent immobilization. The subject is frozen in Snow-Queen-ice-like-glass, just as she was at the time of life taken by the camera, the body forever iced in the dress of 'that day and age.'" Mavor thus connects Snow White's glass casket trimmed with gold to the casket-like cases that tenderly hold and protect the magical, fragile, daguerreotyped post-mortem portraits of children.


Aurelia: Art and Literature through the Mouth of the Fairy Tale
By Carol MavorReaktion Books, 2017.

Mavor returns to the image of the glass casket near the book's conclusion, when she recounts how Emmett Till's mother insisted that his mutilated face and body remain visible during his wake and funeral (which thousands of mourners attended), and that Jet magazine publish those open-casket photographs so even more people could see what had happened to her son. This chapter focuses on Ralph Eugene Meatyard's dark, Southern Gothic photographs—visual fairy tales that draw inspiration equally from the literature of Flannery O'Connor and contemporary events, such as the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. It ends with a poignant tribute to the 1955 photograph of Emmett Till in his casket—a broken child, which Meatyard's broken black doll echoes—, and which Mavor cannot bring herself to reproduce, instead presenting a blank page captioned, "Emmett Till should be here."



Aurelia: Art and Literature through the Mouth of the Fairy Tale
By Carol MavorReaktion Books, 2017.
Photography, in the form of photographs, artists, and the magical processes of the medium itself, is everywhere in this book, even when it's not explicitly addressed. For example, I can't help but think of photography's magical, transformative processes when Mavor writes, "In a fairy tale one thing can be in the middle of becoming so many things: like the frog becoming a prince, a piece of wood becoming Pinocchio...an ugly duckling becoming a beautiful swan.... The fairy tale is a mise en scène of living and inanimate things, all of which hold marvelous middleness: the potential to transform."

Aurelia is Mavor's sixth book and the latest to showcase her famous ability to write with a compelling mix of intellectual rigor, playful curiosity, and her own passionate sensibilities. The writing is lush and gorgeous, and so is the book itself. Printed on heavy coated paper, each page is like a precious specimen, and throughout the text, key passages appear in rich, gold-colored ink, like sparkling jewels or glittering fairy dust.

As Mavor unspools the wildly tangled threads that weave through these tales, it becomes clear that they have much to teach us—if we're willing to go down into the rabbit hole.

 — Laura M. André

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Laura M. André received her PhD in art history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and taught photo history at the University of New Mexico before leaving academia to work with photography books. She is the manager of the photo-eye Bookstore.






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